I’m fighting off a nasty old cold this week but that doesn’t mean I can’t still enjoy myself. My particular mode of enjoying myself hsa been reading Elizabeth Pisani’s The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS. Pisani, a journalist turned intrepid epidemiologist, has done some remarkable fieldwork in Southeast Asia which she writes about with great candor and wit. I’m only part of the way through (this cold medicine makes me dopey, or perhaps just dopier than usual), but already I’ve found a passage that’s to cherish. In it, Pisani reflects on how badly neat analytical categories, presumably mapped out by World Health Organization officials in offices in Geneva, fail to map onto the complex sexual realities of the real world.
A brief bit of explanation might help. Pisani refers to a kind of person called a “waria” in the passage below. In case you’re not familiar with that, a waria is a third-gender category, a biological male who lives as a woman, and an often-encountered sort of individual in Pisani’s account of sexual life in Jakarta.
One of the first people we spoke to was Fuad, a twenty-one-year-old lad who occasionally worked as a truck driver’s assistant and who bought sex from waria. Fuad’s girlfriend lived in Bandung, a university town in the cool hills west of Jakarta. Because his truck work was intermittent, he occasionally supplemented his income by giving blow-jobs or selling anal sex to men who cruised in one of Jakarta’s few parks, outside the Finance Ministry beneath the bulging thighs of the monumental, bare-chested Papuan who was symbolically breaking free of the shackles of Dutch colonialism. Sex with men was just a cash thing. Fuad was straight. To remind himself of that, he might occasionally want someone to give hi ma blow-job. But that’s not something you can ask of a ‘nice girl’; Fuad shared a common perception that oral sex is insulting to women, including to female sex workers. So he went to a waria, also known less politely as a banci (pronounced banchee).
‘If I go to a banci, well it’s that I’m thinking of my girlfriend,’ Fuad told our research team. ‘I’m 100 per cent into women. Don’t think that because I go to a banci I’m a fag. I’m not into that at all.’
Fuad’s girlfriend was doubtless a nice girl. She also worked the streets of Bandung at night. So here we have a self-proclaimed heterosexual who has unpaid sex with a woman who sells sex to other men, while himself also selling sex to other men and buying it from transsexual sex workers. He pushed a lot of ‘high risk’ buttons for HIV infection, yet he wasn’t a female sex-worker, a client, a drug injector, a gay man or a student. He didn’t fit into a single one of our questionnaire boxes.
And then the payoff:
The truth is, real people don’t have sex in boxes.
Quite so. I hope for a fuller review of the book here at ErosBlog soon. In the meantime, you can visit the website for the book.